Friday, March 15, 2013

Writing Prayers, Year 3

Two years ago, I returned home from AWP to find an invitation in my e-mail box.  Would I be willing to be part of a devotional book writing project?  If so, I'd get a month's worth of readings, and I'd write a prayer for each day, minus Sundays and feast days.  I'd get $50 and 5 copies of the book.

I'd been at numerous AWP workshops that wrestled with the question of pay.  I knew that many of the AWP session leaders would have scoffed at the offer.  They'd have said things like, "If they're getting money, you should get money."  They'd have said that $50 was too little.

But I'm a poet, and the idea of real cash for my words was thrilling.  I'm a theologian, of the non-professional kind, so the thought of being included in a book by a theological press thrilled me even more.  I said yes.

I had a bit of fear, since I've never written more than one prayer at a time.  But I thought it would be a good experience.  I could stretch myself.

I needn't have worried.  My experience as a poet came in handy.

My theology writing experience is that of expansion; I write essays on Gospel lessons.  I write about worship experiences and experiments.  I write about a variety of spiritual disciplines.  I write about the lives of saints.  For the most part, I can use as many words as I want.

For the prayers, I could use 35-40 words per prayer.  Easy-peasy, I thought.

Some of them were that easy.  I looked at the Bible reading, and the prayer just flowed from me.  Sometimes it flowed too fully, and I had to prune words.  Sometimes, I got about 15 words, and I had to write more.

Through my years of poetry writing, I've experimented with both expansion and compression.  I've had the experience of counting and weighing every word.  Writing prayers was no different.

The first year, I wrote the prayers for August.  For the past two years, I've written December prayers.

This year, I found it a bit jarring to write prayers for Advent as we moved through the season of Lent.  But as an administrator, I'm often dwelling in multiple seasons:  I create the schedule for an academic term that's six months away.  I plan events far off in the future.  I guide faculty through documenting a past year's worth of faculty development while also planning for the coming year.  I do the same thing for assessment activities.

This year, I worked on the prayers in a moving car with the music of a past century playing on the stereo.  Will careful readers catch the reference to Johnny Cash?  If so, it will be a surprise to me, since I didn't consciously put any Cash references into the prayers.  I did use the term "pastures of plenty," which I think comes from Woody Guthrie, the spirit who influenced much of the folk music we enjoyed on our car trip last Sunday.

My experience putting books of poems together also comes into play.  I can see themes in the readings, and as I write prayers, I try to do some echoing:  one prayer uses a phrase from an earlier prayer.  I try to keep it in balance, so it's an echo and not an annoying repetition.

I'm glad I said yes to this opportunity years ago.  It's been rewarding.  And each year, the entire print run of books sells out.  This may be the only writing of mine that sells out.

You might say, "See!  You should demand more money."  But it doesn't feel like that kind of operation.  I don't feel like the writerly equivalent of a sweat shop worker.  I know that many presses are barely hanging on, especially presses that publish religious material.

Let's be blunt:  I'm not writing for the money.  Oh, sure, I dream of a best seller.  But I know that most of my writing projects aren't likely to be best sellers--although I'm willing to be happily surprised.

I think that it's worth doing some writing projects just for the joy of it.  I love writing these prayers.  I wish I had more of these kind of opportunities.

I also think that we can't always know which doors will open other doors.  Why not say yes, particularly to a project that won't consume you? 

I like the idea of this writing as a kind of ministry.  I like the idea that come December, people will be praying the prayers that I wrote.  We could have a conversation about whether or not they're my words or words inspired by God or words given to me by a greater power--but that's probably a conversation for my theology blog.

But the short answer:  I feel like they're my words, although I do pray before I do my writing of the prayers, so I do hope that God plays a part.  As I write, I try to make the prayers global and universal.  I want to believe that they'll appeal to everyone--even people who aren't Christians, although I doubt that many non-Christians will find their way to the book.  I'm not writing prayers of proselytizing, don't get me wrong.  But I am writing prayers that ask for God's protection and guidance, prayers that yearn for peace, prayers that ask for God's presence as we come to our full potential.

In many ways, I'm praying multiple times.  I pray before I write the prayers, I pray as I compose them, I pray them again when the books arrive, and then, as the time arrives on the actual calendar, I pray them again in real time, the way they were intended.

This work has enriched me in so many ways that aren't monetary.  I'm like anyone else; I'm always thinking in terms of income streams and what I'll do if my full-time job vanishes and how many income streams I would need.  This prayer book income stream would not suffice by itself. 

Luckily, there are other income streams, so that I do the projects that don't pay as handsomely, the projects that pay in so many other ways.

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